Feuding Founders

Ron Chernow, whose award-winning biography of Alexander Hamilton reinvigorated interest in the most economically savvy

Ron Chernow

Founding Father, penned an excellent essay about political venom during the early years of the republic for the Weekend Journal edition of The Wall Street Journal. He points out that some founders like George Washington feared partisanship and tried to transcend its naturally divisive power, but most were “fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence.”  Chernow states something that students of American political history have always known — and sometimes loathed — for decades: Partisan rancor was there at the beginning, partisan rancor is present in today’s political dialogue, and partisan rancor shows no signs of abating anytime soon.  The articles does a fine job of explaining the unpleasant results of dissent during the early years of the United States (including press attacks against none other than Washington) that eventually led to the first president’s furious rebukes against embyonic party spirit.

No one likes discussions peppered with nasty accusations and heated language.  However, Chernow points out that Washington originally embraced dissent within his cabinet even when it was obvious that Hamilton and his arch-enemy Thomas Jefferson were generating real political factions. That is (of course) reflective of democracy’s best attribute, the freedom to disagree.  It is also the natural result of a nation then and now based on the political and economic visions of so many men and women who hold competing interests. No wonder the words “United States” are written in bold capitals in the original Declaration. Unity is often a rare thing in this nation, though its absence because of political disagreements is not always a tragedy. Then and now, a universe of voices questioning, condemning, and even attacking ideas and leaders is preferable to the quiet orderliness found under repressive governments. The contemporary establishment of bloggers, cable news networks, niche political publications, and Web sites dedicated to political activism took the same methods and ideas of the Founding Generation and made them available to millions more people than they could ever dream of.  That’s why I am always suspicious of individuals who first complain that contemporary political speech is too unruly, then suggest that it should be “restrained” or “civilized” so it will not offend.

No doubt, disunity is always a source of verbal fireworks, and the Founders were often no different than anyone today who is hammering out the fate of the United States. As always, Chernow is up to the task of revealing the humanity of past leaders who are often portrayed as philosopher-kings who never played the game called “politics.”


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